A drill rig arrives at a site of exploration by Highland Copper Co. in the Porcupine Mountains State Park. (Photo © and courtesy Highland Copper Co.)
MARQUETTE -- Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) members and supporters are expressing outrage and frustration following news that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has issued a surface use permit authorizing Orvana Resources -- a subsidiary of Highland Copper -- to begin exploratory copper drilling in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, also know as the Porkies, in Gogebic County.
"The DNR’s actions -- allowing a mining company to conduct exploration drilling in the Porkies -- will outrage a lot of people. And the public should be outraged," said Alexandra Maxwell, UPEC board member. "Once again, we see there isn’t a single square inch of Michigan safe from the threat of sulfide mining and exploration -- they’re mining under our rivers, drilling in fragile wetlands, drilling on state and national forest lands, and now drilling in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park."
According to a DNR press release -- dated Feb. 6, 2017 -- this exploratory drilling, which is intended to add this area -- a 1-mile-square piece of property situated along the westernmost edge of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park -- to Highland Copper's Copperwood mining project, began on Sunday, Feb. 5, and is scheduled to continue into early March, 2017, depending on weather conditions.
This map shows the location (dark blue outline within Section 5 of Wakefield Township) of the exploratory drilling along the western edge of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. The adjacent area with slanted turquoise lines is part of the Copperwood mining project, private land now owned by Highland Copper and permitted for copper mining by the Dept. of Environmental Quality under Part 632. Click on map for larger version. (Map courtesy Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources)
The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is well known for its hiking trails, rugged terrain, old growth forests, miles of wild and scenic Lake Superior shoreline, wilderness campsites, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. The Porkies are an all-season tourism draw for the entire region and have been featured as a premier hiking destination by Backpacker Magazine, USA Today, and other national media.
Steve Garske, botanist and UPEC board member, took this recent photo of one of the drill sites destined for exploratory drilling by Highland Copper/Orvana in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. (Photo © and courtesy Steve Garske)
"This drilling project will affect a very small portion of DNR-managed land," said John Pepin, DNR deputy public information officer. "The vast majority of the park, including the Presque Isle River, will remain unaffected by this exploration activity."
Nevertheless, UPEC and its Mining Action Group have asked why the exploration on public land did not require a public notice and comment period.*
Pepin told Keweenaw Now the law does not require alerting the public in the case of this DNR surface use permit for exploratory drilling, issued on Jan. 31, 2017.
"Michigan law allows the owner of land to separate mineral rights from surface rights," Pepin said. "When mineral rights are severed from surface rights, the mineral estate is the dominant estate and the owner of the mineral rights has a right to 'reasonable' use of the surface to access their minerals. This access is not gained at the discretion of the DNR; the law provides their right."
Jon Saari, historian and UPEC board member, questioned whether this drilling is "reasonable" use.
"The 'public' in public land seems to have no clout," Saari said. "In our name, public lands can be sold, traded, and drilled, often with little or no public input. Shouldn't there be tighter restrictions on what can be done in a wilderness state park like the Porkies? Why are we stuck in a legal mindset from the 1880s that allows 'reasonable' mining exploration in areas where such activity, from a 21st century perspective, is entirely unreasonable?"
Gipsy Creek downstream, east of one of the drill sites inside Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. (Photo © and courtesy Steve Garske)
Kathleen Heideman, UPEC board member, noted the announcement of the drilling has angered many visitors who love the park.
"The sulfide mining industry is leading the State of Michigan around by a leash," Heideman said. "Environmental regulators are completely out of touch with public sentiment on this issue."
The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is widely considered the crown jewel of Michigan’s state park system and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Midwest. The park is prominently featured in the PURE MICHIGAN tourism campaign: "Undisturbed on the edge of Michigan is an untamed world of uncharted woods and unseen stars, a magical place overflowing with waterfalls, where the Porcupine Mountains still whisper ancient tales and legends, and the rivers seem to flow into forever -- a place known as the Wilds of Michigan, found in the Westernmost corner of the Upper Peninsula. Here we can get back in touch with nature, and back in touch with ourselves." Visitors are urged to "come to the Porcupine Mountains (...) and see nature in its purest form." (Source: "Pure Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains: Call of the Wild").
"Considering the exceptional natural and recreational features threatened by this decision, why wasn’t there an opportunity for public input?" asked Steve Garske, botanist and UPEC board member. "It’s up to those who care about Michigan’s future to remind state representatives and agencies (in this case the Michigan DNR) that they serve the public, not multinational mining companies intent on short-term profits at the state’s expense. This is no way to treat our unique Wilderness park," notes Garske.
This photo shows drilling equipment at one of the sites in the Porkies. Steve Garske, who took the photo while hiking in the park, said he spoke with a Highland Copper employee who told him the company was worried that people would be showing up that might "endanger the workers" and that they would be putting cameras up all around the area. He told Garske the company was doing a wonderful job to avoid the damaging the forest. (Photo © and courtesy Steve Garske)
Pepin noted, in addition to the Feb. 6 DNR press release for the general public, Highland Copper notified specific groups about their drilling.
"Highland Copper made contact with several entities, prior to the start of the drilling, including the Gogebic and Ontonagon counties boards of commissioners, Wakefield, Carp Lake and Ironwood townships, state Rep. Scott Dianda, state Sen. Tom Casperson and officials with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and Lac Vieux Desert," Pepin said.
Highland Copper plans to drill 21 temporary exploratory holes (Section 5, T49N R45W, Wakefield Township, Gogebic County). Twelve holes will be drilled on park property west of Gogebic County Road 519 this winter. The remaining nine holes will be drilled on county land within the road right of way.
This map shows Gogebic County Road 519 at right and the 21 drill sites -- 12 on park property west of CR 519 and 9 on county property within the road right of way. Click on map for larger version. (Map courtesy Steve Garske)
Each drilling site will have a drill pad of roughly 25 feet by 60 feet. Drilling will be completed using a tracked drilling rig along existing roads, where feasible, to limit disturbance to natural resources. The drill holes will be about 5 inches in diameter. Depths will range from roughly 150 feet to 1,000 feet below the surface.
Actions to be taken by Highland Copper to reduce the impact of its exploratory operations include the following:
- Operating only on frozen ground to prevent or reduce surface disturbance.
- Using existing roads, including two-tracks, for access and test-hole location when feasible. Any new routes will avoid steep slopes or tree removal and minimize erosion.
- Using specialized tracked equipment to reduce surface disturbance and minimize the number of trips within the park.
- Avoiding cutting trees where possible; where trees are damaged, the state will be reimbursed for those trees at current market value.
- Instituting additional planning and control measures at any drainage or stream crossings. No wetland filling or stream crossing installations are planned.
- Working with an on-site DNR Parks and Recreation Division employee to inform any decisions made regarding alternate access routes, surface disturbance or tree removal.
If the exploration results indicate the potential for copper in suitable quality and mineable quantities, Highland Copper would conduct a feasibility study, designed to mine the deposit entirely by underground methods, allowing the company to gain access to the copper ore body from land it owns outside the park.
DEQ: Mining in Porkies would require amendment to Copperwood's Part 632 permit
Any potential mining of the minerals would require a separate regulatory process through the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Highland Copper would have to amend its existing Part 632 mining permit for the Copperwood project and prove to the DEQ that, if the area were mined, no material damage would occur to state-managed park surface features.
DEQ Oil, Gas and Minerals Division U.P. District Geologist Joe Maki said the area of this exploratory drilling was drilled back in the 1950s and requires confirmation drilling to confirm any deposit. The purpose of the present exploration is a dual assessment: to better assess the size and shape of the deposit and to confirm the assessments from drilling done in the 1950s, Maki explained. The confirmation is required by Canadian National Instrument 43-101 for the company to sell stocks on the Toronto Exchange.
"This deposit is an extension of the geologic formation that included the original White Pine Mine," Maki added. "To add this area to the original Copperwood resource they have to do the confirmation drilling."
Highland Copper's Copperwood project received its Part 632 Mining Permit from DEQ in 2012.** In order to mine in this exploration area, Highland would have to obtain an amendment to the Copperwood Part 632 permit, Maki said.
While the company does not need a DEQ Part 625 exploration permit, they still must follow rules for mineral exploration. DEQ staff do inspections to confirm that the company is meeting those rules.
Melanie Humphrey, geological technician for the DEQ Oil, Gas and Mineral Division Marquette office, told Keweenaw Now she visited the drilling site on Feb. 6, 2017, the same day as the DNR's press release. Drilling had not yet begun, but they were preparing the site.
Humphrey said the exploration rules include the following:
- management of their cuttings and fluids
- cementing the holes after the work is complete
- submitting drilling records to the DEQ Oil, Gas and Mineral Division.
Humphrey also confirmed that this exploratory drilling will not include any stream crossings or wetland impacts.
Should Highland Copper decide to apply for an amendment to their Copperwood Part 632 Mining Permit in order to mine in this area the DEQ would have to inform the public in advance.
"An amendment to Part 632 would require a public notice," Humphrey said.***
* Founded in 1976, the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition’s purpose remains unchanged: to protect and maintain the unique environmental qualities of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan by educating the public and acting as a watchdog to industry and government. UPEC is a nonprofit, registered 501(c)(3) organization. For more information, call 906-201-1949, see UPenvironment.org, visit their Facebook page or contact email@example.com.
The UPEC Mining Action Group (MAG), previously known as Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP), is a grassroots effort to defend the clean water and wild places of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from the dangers of sulfide mining. Contact the UPEC Mining Action Group at miningactiongroupUPEC@gmail.com or call (906) 662-9987. Learn more about the Mining Action Group at miningactiongroup.org or follow MAG’s work on Facebook or Twitter.
** According to the Highland Copper Co. Web site, "Copperwood is a project at the final feasibility stage. All major permits required for mining the Copperwood Project were obtained or approved in 2012 and 2013, subject to certain conditions, including providing financial assurance." See: http://www.highlandcopper.com/s/copperwood.asp
*** Click here for the DEQ Part 632 Mining Permit for the Copperwood project, issued to Orvana Resources in 2012. Highland Copper purchased Copperwood from Orvana in 2014.